You can’t blame NHL coaches if they continue to feel the power of choice is being slowly sucked out of their coaching whistles.
Not just from the league, of course, but from all angles. Many NHL coaches are not fans of the new CBA mandating scheduled days off during training camp and during each month of the regular season, thereby limiting the teaching moments players and coaches can experience on the ice once the schedule starts in earnest.
Of course, limiting practices also removes one of the punitive measures coaches had in order to push better performance out of a hockey club, while dangling a “day off” as the carrot at the end of the race.
But that’s not what’s on the radar of most coaches this September as training camps close out for the NHL 30.
Instead it’s about the undisclosed fine that Buffalo Sabres coach Ron Rolston received from the league for “team conduct and player selection” stemming from the nasty incident involving John Scott and Phil Kessel. In case you missed it, the 6-foot-8 Scott charged after Kessel prior to a face-off in a preseason tilt between the Sabres and Maple Leafs, and the former Bruins sniper started swinging his stick like Conan the Barbarian in what eventually escalated into a line brawl for both Atlantic Division hockey clubs.
Ultimately, Kessel was suspended for the rest of the preseason and David Clarkson got whacked with a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to confront Scott. Missing their big free-agent acquisition from this summer (Clarkson) will certainly hurt a Toronto team early in the season as they look to build on last year’s playoff berth.
But that brings us back to Rolston, who was slapped with the unprecedented fine for “player selection”, and -- according to a story from Chris Stevenson of the QMI Agency -- left a number of coaches upset this particular fine may hamstring coaches when it comes to choosing players to put on the ice.
One coach contacted by QMI was fuming with the decision to fine Rolston.
"So what am I supposed to do now?" he mused. "Do I call the ref over and call timeout so I can call [league vice-president of hockey operations] Colie Campbell and ask him who I can put on the ice?"
He said he was upset enough over the fine that he was thinking about refusing to do in-game interviews as a protest.
"What [Rolston] did was pretty much what a lot of us would have done in those circumstances," said another coach. "Now the league is going to tell who we can and who can't put on the ice? I have no problem with discipline for our actions, but dictating 'player selection' crosses a line in my mind."
What confounded many coaches is the simple fact that Rolston was coaching the road team, and put Scott’s line out on the ice first. It only became a problem when Toronto coach Randy Carlyle reacted by putting Kessel’s line out on the ice with last change, and created a scenario for an incensed Scott to lunge at the skill winger like a schoolyard bully looking to shake down some lunch money.
That turned into a the melee that saw Jonathan Bernier and Ryan Miller eventually brawling in their goalie equipment.
Carlyle insisted he was looking to defuse the situation by putting skill players out with Buffalo’s crash, bang and Goliath line, but now that’s turned into an even bigger gong show with suspensions and two-handed slashes galore.
For a coach like Claude Julien that typically likes to use his fourth line and enforcer Shawn Thornton as a shutdown defensive line after the opposition scores a goal, it’s natural to wonder if he’ll now be in danger of a similar fine should things escalate between No. 22 and a member of the opposition.
The Rolston fine certainly opens the door for Colin Campbell and the NHL to come after any coach’s “player selection” on the ice. That’s something that makes coaches feel uncomfortable and understandably so.
NHL coaches already watch their words very carefully in the wake of the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore lawsuit that saw legal liability come into play during hockey violence situations, and the potential that a coach could be named in a lawsuit if he ordered a “Code Red” targeting an opposing player.
So while some of these developments help diminish the chances of players like Scott and Kessel out on the ice at the same time, it also has coaches like Julien scratching their collective heads.
“I didn’t read much about it, but it’s a situation where [Rolston] was on the road and he put his first guys on. So he’s entitled to that. As another coach, you get a chance to put whatever line you want out there against that [Scott] line,” said Julien.
“I wasn’t watching the game, and I really don’t know if there was more to it than that. When you listen to [Carlyle], he was trying to defuse the thing. He probably thought by putting Kessel out there that Scott wasn’t going to do anything.
“So there are a lot of things that come into play. We [as coaches] are losing more and more of our control. It’s becoming tougher on coaches, and I hope at some point we still have some leverage to do the things we have to do to make our team accountable and responsible.”
It has never been Julien’s style to send his players out for vigilante justice in hostile situations as the Bruins coach believes that kind of thing cheapens the game, and he’s 100 percent bang on in that regard.
Chances are the B’s coach will never have to worry about receiving a “player selection” fine from the NHL. But it’s now become just another possibility in the back of a coach’s mind.
BITZ OUT OF THE HOCKEY GAME
With the Bruins in Saskatchewan last week for an exhibition game, thoughts drifted back to Saskatoon native Byron Bitz and his time with the Boston Bruins after being a fourth-round pick way back in the 2003 NHL draft.
Bitz was a smart, quiet, tough player out of the Cornell University program, and he used his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame to good effect while playing for the Bruins from 2008-2010. He even registered some time with Marc Savard in Boston before it was quickly learned he had the hands of a plumber. Bitz’s stint with the Bruins ended when he was dealt to the Florida Panthers in 2010 along with Craig Weller and a second-round pick for Dennis Seidenberg and Matt Bartkowski, a trade that now looks even more ridiculously one-sided over the course of time.
The cerebral Bitz played a grand total of 17 games over two seasons for the Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers, and was beset by a sports hernia injury and back issues that knocked him in and out of the lineup in 2011-12.
Given the injuries and the fact Bitz had bounced around to a couple of different teams, the big, brawny forward never caught on with another hockey team once the NHL lockout had ended.
It now appears the 29-year-old Bitz has called it quits in his pro hockey career as he hasn’t played in the NHL or the AHL since ending his last NHL season with the Canucks in 2012. Now Bitz is working back in Saskatoon in the agricultural business for Richardson Pioneer, and settled back into his home city.
With Bitz pushing 30 years old and holding an Ivy League degree from Cornell, an NHL comeback doesn’t appear likely for him after putting up eight goals and 4 assists in 97 regular season games through his career. Always a smart kid, there’s no doubt Bitz is making the right decision and is happy to be back in the Saskatoon region where he was so proud to be from in the first place.
SPEAKING OF SASKATOON
Milan Lucic had fond, freezing memories of the Saskatchewan capital city during his first road trip as a member of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. The Bruins menacing power forward was a fresh-faced teenager outside of British Columbia for the first time, and excited to be going on his first junior hockey road trip.
The B’s left winger had brought a suit with him, but wasn’t quite prepared for weather that turned out to be quite a bit colder than his native Vancouver. Canadian outposts like Saskatoon and Winnipeg are among the coldest spots on the entire continent of North America, and that was a lesson that Lucic learned quickly out on the road in the hinterlands of Canada.
“I played here once back in November of 2005,” said Lucic of the Credit Union Centre home of the Saskatoon Blades where the Bruins played their preseason finale against the Winnipeg Jets. “It was actually my first road trip in junior with the Giants. All I remember it was the first time I had been outside of Vancouver at the end of November. We’re talking Celsius here, and I’d never experienced anything below minus-3 or minus-4 degrees. We came here and it was minus-25 or minus-30.
“So it was the first time I had experienced cold like that. I was not prepared for it. I had a thin suit with no overcoat, and I suffered on that road trip. [Brad Marchand] and I were actually back here for a Canada/Russia game in 2007, but it was cool to be back in a WHL venue where it all began for me.”
Clearly, Lucic meant “cool” in the literal sense rather than the figurative one given the city he was speaking about.
*According to a couple of league sources, Jordan Caron wasn’t likely to pass through waivers if the Bruins had cut him from training camp in an attempt to send him to the AHL. It certainly helped the 22-year-old Caron that he looked better as training camp unfolded for the Bruins, but it would have been poor asset management to allow a former first-round pick to potentially leave the organization for nothing in return.
That being said, don’t be surprised if Caron is traded at some point this season so the Bruins can reclaim some kind of value on a player that doesn’t appear he’s ever going to live up to his potential in Boston. Nick Johnson outplayed Caron during training camp and deserved an NHL spot, but sometimes that’s not enough in the unfair world of professional sports.
* Strange story in Maine where the Portland Pirates have bailed on the city of Portland and the Cumberland County Civic Center, instead relocating to Lewiston, Maine for the season after getting into a contract dispute with the Civic Center’s Board of Trustees.
One has to expect that the crowds will be sparse in Lewiston as compared to Maine’s most vibrant city, but perhaps the presence of junior hockey in Lewiston has made it a hockey hotbed where fans will fill the Androscoggin Bank Colisee stands for the Phoenix Coyotes farm team.
“This is our home now,” Pirates’ CEO and managing owner Brian Petrovek said to reporters. “We haven’t been given the privilege or the right we think we’d negotiated to play in Portland, so this is home. And we have to look at it that way. We have a home in Saco, and we have a home in Lewiston, and that’s it. We have to figure out how to make this home work. And it’s home, not just a hotel room.”
The city of Portland can’t attempt to woo another AHL team, either, as the league will not allow a second franchise within a 50 mile radius of Lewiston after the Pirates opted to move there.
*You have to know the Edmonton Oilers are headed in the right direction after naming Andrew Ference as the 14th team captain in franchise history, and hearing this as his mandate: “This team, without a doubt, has a lot of skill, and has a lot of pieces that other teams wish they had. But I think what it’s struggled with is having a strong identity. It’s easy to talk about how you want to change, or what you want other teams to think of you. But actually doing it … living it, letting your actions speak? That takes a lot of work. That’s goal No. 1 here: to establish that identity.”
Good luck to one of the guys that really “gets it” in Ference, and somebody that will no doubt be in the postseason once again as he has been so many times while racking up 120 playoff games of experience in his career.
* Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.